Space-based solar power and 21st-century geopolitical competition
2 Apr 2019|

Way back in the 1970s, when NASA was contemplating the future after the Apollo moon landings, it was thinking big—really big. Two of its big ideas—Gerard K. O’Neill’s proposed space colonies and the idea of space solar power systems—were all the rage then. It was a grand vision for a space-based economy that would transform global society.

NASA’s lunar plans failed to secure US government support, and the massive funding of the 1960s moon race had come to a screeching halt by the mid-1970s. Also problematic was that NASA’s space shuttle, which first flew in 1981, never delivered on promises of low-cost access to space. Without a decrease in the cost of access, the price of space-based solar power would never be competitive with terrestrial sources of energy. Finally, we were ignorant of climate change—and coal was cheap and plentiful.

So it’s interesting that, 50 years later, China seems very interested in building solar power satellites of its own. The move is important for a number of reasons, and not just in terms of pure space exploration.

Simply put, space solar power satellites (SSPS) are designed to gather energy from the sun—which is uninterrupted in space and isn’t affected by the earth’s atmosphere or by day and night cycles—and beam that energy back to earth where it can power national power grids. Like commercial nuclear fusion power (that other big idea that is forever 30 years away), space-based solar power opens up the prospect of clean, limitless energy.

China is now indicating a desire to develop an SSPS capability in coming decades, emphasising a gradual approach of developing larger and more powerful satellites that are assembled in orbit by large space-based 3D printers. Using on-orbit manufacturing reduces the challenges of transporting large structures from earth into space. China’s investment in heavy-lift launch vehicles like the Long March IX, which will carry 140 tons into low-earth orbit, and its accelerating development of reusable rockets and spaceplanes, as well as the growth of its commercial space sector, could also support a Chinese SSPS network.

The timetable for developing this capability, originally published in China’s Science and Technology Daily, extends through the next decade. Work has already begun on building a ground station in Chongqing to receive the microwave energy gathered by the SSPS. The next step is to test the system using high-altitude ‘stratospheric’ solar power balloons between 2021 and 2025, and then deployment of the first space-based SSPS in the second half of the next decade. The goal would be to construct megawatt-class satellites by 2030, and gigawatt-class satellites before 2050, which could weigh up to 1,000 tons.

With on-orbit manufacturing for building large structures, the raw materials would need to come from mining lunar regolith rather than from earth. That ties in with China’s plans for a lunar base by the 2030s.

China’s interest in pursuing SSPS has some significant geopolitical implications for 21st-century energy competition. Fundamentally, the country that achieves a viable SSPS network first can potentially reshape global energy markets and, in turn, have much greater control over economic activity on earth from space.

I’ve noted previously that China has been promoting a ‘space Silk Road’ via its Beidou global navigation system to states that have signed up to its Belt and Road Initiative. That campaign appears to be designed to deepen those states’ dependency on China as a provider of information infrastructure provider. Adding an energy dimension would dramatically deepen Chinese control of any recipient society. China’s SSPS would be promoted as contributing towards interdependent co-development—the ‘win–win’ rhetoric of China’s foreign ministry—as well as easing dependency on fossil fuels that contribute to climate change. However, there’s no disguising the fact that it would be China that provides the energy to keep recipient states prosperous. That implies serious political leverage.

A Chinese SSPS network would also need large rectenna farms at key locations to receive the beamed energy from orbit and then distribute it to local grids. Such facilities would clearly be critical infrastructure, constructed and operated by China within recipient states. That would further deepen Chinese investment and influence in BRI states.

China isn’t the only country looking at this technology. Japan has made SSPS part of its future space exploration vision, though on a much smaller scale, and India has also expressed an interest in the concept. If it becomes clear that China is serious about SSPS and it makes significant progress in coming years, the US is unlikely to sit back and accept that China will lead in this new technology. To do so would give Beijing global energy dominance by the middle of the 21st century.

In the 1970s, SSPS foundered on its inability to compete with cheaper terrestrial technologies—albeit ones that led to the global climate change challenge we face today. Now, 50 years later, while there’s growing interest in a second look at SSPS, the US isn’t leading the charge. Instead, it is focused on developing renewable technologies to meet its domestic energy demands and gradually phase out fossil fuels. Similar efforts are underway in Europe and other places, including Australia.

Renewable technology is a highly diversified private-sector market. It’s not so easy for one state to dominate it. By contrast, SSPS would be a centrally controlled, state-based ‘big science’ endeavour that can be more easily exploited for geopolitical and astropolitical purposes. Renewable energy technology may offer part of the solution, but it doesn’t necessarily cancel out China’s potential to use SSPS for hegemonic influence.

What emerges is the possibility of strategic jostling between competing approaches for ensuring 21st-century energy security and economic prosperity.

Certainly, the US and others can rise to the challenge. NASA has plans for a return to the lunar surface by 2024, and commercial space companies such as SpaceX and Blue Origin emphasise a permanent lunar presence. That ‘moon first’ approach opens up the possibility of an SSPS race centred on ensuring access to the lunar ‘high ground’ to get the vital resources required for building large structures like satellites.

There’s also that other possibility of nuclear fusion power to consider. Like SSPS, it’s a massive science and engineering endeavour. Fusion power—if mastered—would be a viable alternative to SSPS but, ironically, would also require an ability to tap into lunar-based helium-3 to make it possible, demanding a US return to the moon anyhow. If, however, fusion continues to remain an elusive dream, the US may be forced to look seriously at SSPS or watch China develop the means to achieve global energy dominance, perhaps by 2050.